So now here comes Cal, not from some school off the beaten path where he needs to kick down doors and do the impossible, but right there from the mountaintop in Lexington, right there from the inner circle.
The Roman Empire of college basketball, Rick Pitino once called Kentucky basketball. The Notre Dame of college basketball, John Calipari supposedly described it to his Memphis players on Monday. They meant the glory days of each.
And now Kentucky chose Calipari; an establishment, Cadillac program ended what appeared to be a career-long freeze-out of one of the game's most proven winners. Just when it seemed like Cal was going to have to try and win it all from Memphis, Kentucky threw in the towel of bowing to innuendo and got real.
It's about winning in college basketball; nothing more, nothing less.
Calipari is no worse than most of the game's top coaches. No better either. Does he take kids of questionable character? Of course, how many don't? Does he use his friendship with William Wesley to land star recruits? Yes, and he doesn't apologize for it.
"Recruiting is about relationships and I've known William Wesley for 20 years," he said.
You think he's the only one working that angle?
This scared schools when it came to Cal. It didn't when it came to other coaches. Perception was reality, though.
Pitino had NCAA violations in his past as an assistant and Kentucky gladly hired him to clean up after a scandal, which he did. Roy Williams left Kansas to deal with major violations and everyone thought he was right for North Carolina, which he was.
It's all a big shade of gray; one that the Big Blue finally embraced.
They missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991 and haven't been to a Final Four since 1998. Tubby Smith was a good man but he had too many team turmoils and not enough deep NCAA runs. Billy Gillispie worked like a mad man but never looked comfortable in Lexington.
Calipari will suffer neither problem. The guy was born to coach at a place like Kentucky. He'll win. He'll win games; he'll win over the fans; he'll win championships.
He could win one next season if some of his star recruits bail on Memphis and follow him to UK where Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks await. Seriously, it could be that quick.
And that's why he's here.
Calipari was torn, his assistants and confidants say. He spent two gut-wrenching days trying to find a reason to turn down his dream job. He'd come to love Memphis, come to love being the big-mouth spokesman for a team and a city that the powers that be would love to forget. He'd rant about state funding and politics as much as the RPI and bracketology. It was a role he played well.
He'll do some of the same in Kentucky – becoming a spokesperson for the school and the state – only now he won't have to worry about getting media attention or respect or top recruits. They'll come because they've always come. This is the program with the most passionate fan base, with top-tier facilities, with a magical tradition.
That's what he couldn't say no to. Not to mention the $31 million, of course.
All of a sudden college basketball's ultimate outsider is an insider; Coach Cal has the keys to the castle. It's a marriage that has to send fear across college basketball. When Kentucky is rolling, nothing rolls quite like it. Pitino had it that way in the 1990s and the Wildcats went to three consecutive national title games, winning twice (1996, 1998).
Since then though, something's been missing. Smith kept a low profile and while he had a number of good clubs, after Pitino's players left he had no great ones. Entire seasons were plagued by off-court issues. Gillispie's brief era will be better forgotten than remembered.
Now here comes Cal and you wonder what will happen down the road at Louisville. Pitino, who once helped get his alma mater, UMass, to hire Cal, has no interest in this. He was pushing Travis Ford and John Pelphrey in the media for a reason, and not just loyalty to former players.
Pitino doesn't fear Calipari, but he dreads him. He dreads the comments, dreads the rivalry, dreads the fact that he isn't going to be able to push the Wildcats around anymore.
Mostly he just dreads having to deal with this guy. No one wants to be Calipari's rival. John Chaney, who now swears by the guy, once tried to fight him at a news conference.
"You just pull that little cord, and the same [comments] come out," a flustered Pitino said after one of their many dust-ups when U of L was in Conference USA.
You wonder if Calipari's presence down I-64 is enough to make that Arizona job a bit more appealing for Pitino.
No matter, the landscape of the game has changed. Suddenly there is stable leadership at each of the nation's six biggest powers – Duke, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA.
Soon enough all six will be firing again on all cylinders, making it that much tougher for the upstart programs, the interlopers without the historic pedigree.
With Calipari, Kentucky has to like its chances. Calipari, for once, has to like his, too.
- John Calipari
- Rick Pitino
- college basketball